Born: September 12th, 1922
Died: November 15th, 2005
He was called many nicknames during his illustrious career; and which one best suits him is still debated; names such as, “The Hormel Hammerer,” “The Austin Assassin,” and “The Austin Atom” top the list. Yet, there has never been any debate among local historians as to who was the most exciting fighter ever to climb into a Minnesota ring, as Jackie Graves has universally held that title more than a half century, and oh what a fighter he was.
John Thomas Graves was born in Austin, Minnesota on September 12, 1922. He began boxing in the Golden Gloves while an early teenager at the old Shaw Gym in downtown Austin, and his legend grew from there. As one of the most decorated amateur fighters in history, Jackie captured more titles than our fingers care to type, yet his amateur record of 284-6 still draws conversation, as does his National Championship title in 1942. As an amateur, Graves was drawing crowds of 3,000 – 5,000 people every time he fought. When he turned professional in 1944, he was made the Main Event in his very first outing; a practice that may not be uncommon today for prospects, but was unheard of back then. Even more remarkable was the fact that Heavyweight Champion, Joe Louis came to town to referee the fight-talk about making an entrance into the pro game.
In just his 7th pro fight, he blasted out the much more experienced George DeGidio in just three heats, taking DeGidio’s coveted state Featherweight title in the process, a title Graves would hold for 6 years. Managed by Len Kelly of Albert Lea, and promoted by the legendary Tony Stecher, Graves went on a meteoric rise to the top of the Featherweight division that packed people in by the thousands every time he headlined a card. His southpaw style combined with his explosive speed and punch in either hand, made him a sensation the state had not seen since the days of King Tut in the 1930′s. He suffered his first loss to Bernard Docusen in 1944 in Docusen’s hometown of New Orleans, a loss that even the Louisiana newspapers called, “a crime”. But Jackie came storming back from the setback, beating former world champion, Harry Jeffra by unanimous decision in February of 45′. He then took on fellow power-punching prospect, the undefeated Charley Riley, knocking him out so cold and through the ropes that it took a full two minutes to revive him. He then took on top-rated Luis Castillo, winning a unanimous decision, before facing an even bigger test in former world champion, Tony Olivera. 9,000 people watched Graves outbox the boxer, closing both his eyes in the process.
Now rated among the Top 10 in the world, Graves began campaigning for a title shot. A string of impressive victories, including one over another former world champion in Jackie Wilson, “The Austin Atom” was granted a shot at the greatest Featherweight of all-time in Willie Pep. Pep was managed by Lou Viscusi, and Viscusi was not a risk-taker. Lou didn’t like the fact that Jackie was a southpaw, and a killer hitter at that, but agreed to the fight provided that Pep’s title would not be at stake. Graves and his management agreed, hoping to make their statement. The fight would prove to be one of the biggest in state history, packing in 9,037 people and a gate of $39,866 (about $440,000 today). Jackie broke his left hand in round 2, but fought on bravely, hitting the deck 9 times before the fight was stopped in the 8th round, but not before dropping Pep twice in the 6th. Pep would later comment that Graves was the hardest puncher he’d ever faced.
He later rebounded from the loss and won 6 straight fights, 4 of them by KO, including one over former champion, Jackie Callura. Just when Jackie was poised to be granted another shot at Pep, and this time for the title, he lost in an upset to the Cuban champion, Miguel Acevedo in April of 47′. The knockout loss was a major setback for Graves and his team, though they once again set their sites on the championship. Graves went on a tear, winning 15 straight, 9 by KO, including a nice victory over former Bantamweight champion, Harold Dade, before taking a Draw against Proctor Heinhold in late 1948′.
After knocking out the highly regarded Humberto Sierra in 1949, and winning a stay busy fight over Teddy “Red Top” Davis, Graves was still rated in the Top 5 in the world, and boasted of an impressive record of 64-4-1 before facing in-state rival, Glen Flanagan in a grudge fight for his coveted state title. Graves took a unanimous decision, but then made a costly error by agreeing to an immediate rematch the following month, but taking a long vacation in Miami. Flanagan trained hard for the fight and it paid off, as his knocked Graves out in 3 rounds in November of 49′. More bad luck followed Jackie, as he suffered a 9th round KO defeat at the hands of Ernesto Aguilar after winning every round up to that point. Many began to wonder if Graves still had it, and Graves showed them that he did, by rebounding with 8 consecutive victories, 7 by KO including flattening Acevedo in 1 round in a rematch.
Graves continued his career with wins over former champion, Manuel Ortiz and contender Diego Sosa, as well as fighting an exciting Draw with Danny Davis in 1955 for the state Lightweight title. After losing a rubber match with Glen Flanagan in March of 56′, Graves retired and left behind a legacy that is still talked about to this day. In an era of only one champion, and seven weight classes, being ranked was no easy task to accomplish. Graves was ranked a total of 46 months over a seven-year period of his career. When it was all over, he owned a record of 82 wins, 11 losses, and 2 draws with 48 KO’s, including 15 of those KO’s being in the 1st round, and a whopping 83% of his knockouts were within the first 5 rounds! He can also say that he fought 32 ranked opponents, beat 6 out of 7 world champions, and beat 6 Hall of Famers. Many historians regard him as the pound-for-pound hardest puncher in state history, and arguably the best Featherweight Minnesota has ever produced. When asked in 2003 what his greatest accomplishment in boxing was, Graves replied, “That I was the greatest attraction Minnesota boxing has ever had. I don’t know if anyone will ever bring in as many fans as I did in Twin City arenas. To know that people found me so exciting to watch, that makes me feel good, it really does.”